Making 3yo understand the consequences of teasing

kim_BDecember 12, 2001

Long story short, I found out from my 3 yo DS that he and his older cousin who is 9 have been calling a little girl "fat". I immediately told him how wrong this is, and how it could hurt her feelings. He said "she doesn't cry". I just don't know how to explain the implications of this to him. At his age, he would just laugh along with you if you called him a name and think it was a big joke, but this little girl is about 10 or so, and I'm sure she doesn't find it amusing. My nephew who is involved in this can be made to understand, and I plan on discussing it with his mom, but how do I make my 3 year old understand what hurt feelings are?


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I think I would first try to explain to him that you don't do everything your older cousin does. Kids tend to think that because they're older, they only do the right things or something to that extent. How do you handle things with your son? My son is almost 3 and we've, well I've always tried to explain things even when people said he wouldn't understand. I somehow relate it to soemthing else he knows. My fiance' sometimes thinks I'm crazy explaining things to our son but he'll repeat it later and I tell him he knows! So could you remember a time his feelings may have gotten hurt and relate that to how the little girl is feeling? I don't have any big advice, I guess, I 'm sorry. good luck!


    Bookmark   December 12, 2001 at 11:59AM
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Give up the idea of 'making' because that oversimplifies things and he's an individual human being after all.

The short answer, which sometimes works is that if he understands 'nice' or 'gentle' then he might be able to understand that some words are hurt words and they can hurt people. You can give him a good sharp contrast conceptually for it, and make that word or 'calling' others things a no-no (or whatever, just use his phrase for what calling that girl, or others fat and make it known to him that it is 'bad' like hitting is bad).

He probably won't be able to grasp hurt feelings in the abstract. He can probably learn about the concept of teasing. If you can catch him at a time when he's really proud of her efforts at something, or showing off you can give him positive attention for that. You might be able to ask him how he would feel if... for pretend, you said 'that's not good' or something negative that could apply. (Be clear about the pretending part). Listen to his interpretation of that, so you can work with his view and not someone else's.

That kind of approach for a verbal child can sometimes be effective to get across the idea that words can hurt. He may be able to understand that sometimes 'little' hurts might hurt but a person might not cry. (They can be hurt and not cry. This one is difficult because 3 year olds need and mainly notice very strong contrasts to order their world. Good/Bad, nice/mean, boy/girl, cry/smile or laugh, big/small, and all kinds of nicely paired sets of concepts that are simple and easy to make sense of. Cry goes with hurt and pain. If a person is hurt, you can tell because they will cry. 3 year olds are usually in the beginning stages of being able to recognize reciprocity of relationships. He might have had no, and maybe developmentally just has the beginnings of the capacity to notice consciously that his actions affect others.)

Find some feelings books, and emotion story books written for preschoolers. Take some time reading them with him. He will learn, and you can use examples from his own life as he has social conflicts with his friends or at school or other places. It is a milestone leap though to be able to understand that one's own actions can and do affect others (and those others have feelings like ours, and it's important to consider them since we have to be able to live in and share to some extent the same world).

    Bookmark   December 12, 2001 at 11:59AM
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I don't think you can necessarily get him to truly understand how he's hurt her feelings. At 3 I think you lay the groundwork for true understanding when they are older. You have done the right thing by explaining to him that he hurt her even if she didn't cry. You might even make it a rule...just like he might not be allowed to call someone stupid...he's not allowed to tease and give examples of what teasing might be. As he gets older you can revisit this topic and I think you will find that when he's a little older he really does understand. We can teach them to be sensitive by discussing not only their behaviour but how they feel when someone hurts their feelings and even to keep an eye out for this happening outside of your lives so you can talk about it objectively. An example may be if he tells you of something that happened at school between two other people....or something he might see on a TV show. Help him to imagine how the people are feeling. Ask him what he would be feeling if he was either of these people. He may slip from time to time but I think if you keep on top of it you will see that eventually he really understands.

    Bookmark   December 12, 2001 at 12:33PM
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At 3 it will be difficult. Look for some videos geared toward kids that target teasing. Kid shows like Arthur, Dragon Tales, etc often have good examples. When they see it that way sometimes the message clicks. It did for my DD.

    Bookmark   December 13, 2001 at 5:48PM
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Children have to learn empathy for others. Make sure that you are setting a good example for him by expressing sadness when you see or hear of someone being mistreated.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2001 at 8:14AM
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I agree with whazzup. You can't "make him understand" at this age. Some people never learn about how other people feel, no matter what their age.

What you can do is insist that no matter what.... YOU WILL NOT INSULT ANYONE. NOR WILL YOU SAY UGLY THINGS ABOUT THEM. That is a concept that he can handle. It's simple. Show your disaproval when he disobeys. Later he will grow to understand the whys of this. If you set a good example and remark how how you feel when something unpleasant is said about someone, he will gradually follow your lead.

One thing we did with ours, was when there was name calling, etc was to say, "Only stupid people call other people stupid." Or something similar. It took countless repetitions, but eventually, it sunk in that we would not tolerate such remarks. It didn't have a thing to do with trying to get them to understanding the concept of "hurting" people's feeling. It was a matter of good manners.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2001 at 10:09AM
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I'm going through this now with my 3 1/2 year old. What works for me is sort of along the lines of a book or video, but more personal.

I make up stories about when I was a little girl. They are short and very simple, and I allow him to listen to the story and apply the lesson to his life without the judgment of me lecturing him about his own behavior.

For instance, I told him that when I was a little girl, I had a friend named Jessica, and one day on the playground some girls were calling Jessica a baby and it made her cry. I felt sad that they were making Jessica cry, so I told them to stop it.

My son will usually start asking questions about my story, but ones that obviously apply to his life: Did you call Jessica a baby? Did the other kids call you a baby? What did the teachers say?, etc. I tailor my answers so that he can understand the appropriate behavior for the situation.

I teach my son that there are 3 options in most situations: use your words to tell the other person what you want or are feeling; walk away and go somewhere you feel more safe; or tell an adult. So my stories or my answers to his questions usually incorporate one of those things.

It's less about empathy (although that plays a role) because I'm not sure he GETS the empathy thing yet, but it does teach him the appropriate response to certain situations.

Again, telling him a story without lecturing him or even bringing up his own behavior seems to play a key role in him actually listening to me and internalizing what I'm saying.

Hope you find this helpful.

    Bookmark   December 14, 2001 at 4:16PM
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